Important Terms: structuralism, post-structuralism, sign, signifier, signified, the “third order,” “death of the author,” verisimilitude, insignificant notation and the  “reality effect”

Short Definitions of some of the key terms:

Structuralism: “a theory of humankind that arose in France in the 1950s and whose proponents attempted to show systematically, even scientifically, that all elements of human culture, including literature, may be understood as a system of signs. (Bedford 401)

“structuralism originated in opposition to [the study of consciousness]: instead of describing experience, the goal was to identify the underlying structures that make it possible. In place of phenomenological description of consciousness, structuralism sought to analyze structures that operate unconsciously [. . . ] In literary studies, structuralism promotes a poetics interest in the conventions that make literary works possible; it seeks not to produce new interpretations of works but to understand how they can have the meanings and effects that they do” (Culler, Literary Theory, Epub 153-154)


Poststructuralism: Most definitions of poststructuralism stress the rejection of its conclusions and methods. Culler, however, suggests that poststructuralism – which emerges out of the work of prominent structuralists including Barthes and Foucault – actually is an extension of structuralism: It is a “turn away from the project of working out what makes cultural phenomena intelligible and emphasize[s] instead a critique of knowledge, totality, and the subject. It treats each of these as a problematical effect. The structures of the systems of signification do not exist independently of the subject, as objects of knowledge, but are structures for subjects, who are entangled with the forces that produce them” (Culler, Literary Theory, Epub 155-158)

“In its extreme forms, the poststructural claim is that the workings of language inescapably undermine meanings in the very process of making such meanings possible, or else that every mode of discourse “constructs,” or constitutes, the very facts or truths of knowledge that it claims to discover.” (Abrams, Glossary of Literary Terms 279) 


Sign, Signifer, Signified

Signifier (sign as we perceive it, marks on the page and sounds in the air) + Signified (abstract concept) = Sign (Signifying construct)

“For Saussere, a language is a system of signs and the key fact is what he calls the arbitrary nature of the linguistic sign. This means two things. First, the sign (for instance, a word) is a combination of the form (the ‘signifier’) and a meaning (the ‘signified’), and the relation between form and meaning is based on convention, not natural resemblance” (Culler, Literary Theory, 74-76)

“Each language is a system of concepts as well as forms: a system of conventional signs that organizes the world” (Culler, Literary Theory, Epub 74-76)

“the third order”: semiotic phrase signifying the union of the concrete and the abstract that is representation

A useful Semiotics site produced at Princeton University

The Purdue Online Writing Lab can be helpful in understanding these terms. I also encourage you to look into definitions in Abrams’s Glossary of Literary Terms and Culler’s Literary Theory